Notes on Twee, part 2: The Crash Test Dummies (Those Avant-Garde Harbingers of Mainstream Superheroes, School Plays, and the Willful Embrace of Nostalgia)

Was this the Twee avant-garde?

In my last post in this series, I embedded and linked to every single music video I know that uses the concept of the video as a school musical. (Please let me know if I’ve missed any; I’m sure there are more.) Such videos became especially pronounced in the 2000s, especially between 2005 and 2007. (Perhaps since then the success of Disney’s High School Musical (2006) has killed the concept?)

The earliest example that I could find was the video for the Crash Test Dummies’ 1994 hit single “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm,” from their 1993 album God Shuffled His Feet. Embedding has been disabled for this video, but I’d encourage you to go watch it. (I’ll go watch it, too, and relive the glory days of my high school senior year).

What strikes me most about this video now, aided by hindsight, is how avant-garde it is. By this I don’t mean that it’s experimental; rather, my point is that this video anticipates a good deal of the next 15–20 years of US culture. (And I don’t think the Crash Test Dummies were unique in this, but they make for a convenient example. Also, I think it’s amusing to point out how so many aesthetic elements supposedly novel today were in fact already with us two decades ago.)

The Crash Test Dummies, as I (somewhat fondly) remember them, were a harmless-enough folk-rock/novelty band. They had a stupid name (which announced their sillier intentions), a proclivity for blandly catchy tunes, a lead singer with a deep voice that seemed at least half a put-on, and a soft spot for awkward, sophomorically philosophical lyrics:

The people sipped their wine,
And what with God there, asked him questions
Like: do you have to eat, or get your hair cut in heaven?
And if your eye got poked out in this life
Would it be waiting up in heaven with your wife?
(from “God Shuffled His Feet”—the video for which also involves a play, puppets, and claymation)

Something was in the air; the next year brought us Joan Osborne’s “(What If God Was) One of Us?”

Note the Belle Epoque photography equipment! There’s also a 1950s-retro element, with the solarized 8mm footage (which cribs heavily from Stan Brakhage—check out those inserted white flashes.)

So how else were the Crash Test Dummies—relatively speaking—ahead of the curve?

The Modern Age of Superheroes

Overall they gave the impression of being self-conscious kooks—Canadians!—who, admirably, weren’t afraid to come across as faintly ridiculous. Proud dorks, they name-checked T.S. Eliot when they weren’t singing about caveman and mammoths and—in their first hit single in 1991—Superman. Since we’re already down in it, let’s watch that music video as well:

Once again, talk about prescient: 1992 saw DC’s “Death of Superman” crossover. Brad Roberts was born beneath a lucky star.

And of course zombies are extremely popular now.

I was a sophomore in high school in 1991, and a tremendous comic book fan, but when I read my comics on the school bus, I did so discreetly. The Crash Test Dummies, however, thought enough of Superman to write a song about him (and to admit to knowing who Solomon Grundy is—and they don’t mean the nursery rhyme).

When did superheroes become mainstream? 1978’s Superman was a big hit, as was 1980’s Superman II. The franchise went downhill swiftly after that. 1989 saw the Batman movie, but despite its popularity it was arguably pretty camp and ridiculous right from the start—look at Jack Nicholson’s performance as the Joker. And that franchise of course quickly became even campier under Joel Schumacher, and lost popularity.

Amidst all of that we had:

1989: X-Men: Pryde of the X-Men (cartoon)
1990 Darkman
1990 Dick Tracy
1991–5: Darkwing Duck (ABC cartoon)
1991 Captain America (direct-to-video)
1991 The Rocketeer
1992 Batman Returns
1992–5: Batman: The Animated Series (Fox cartoon)
1992–7: X-Men: The Animated Series (Fox)

None of these movies were tremendous hits, although I remember the X-Men and Batman cartoons gaining some popularity over time. (I had stopped reading superhero comics by this point, so I ignored them; they also seemed to me to be pitched toward younger viewers.)

1994 Crumb
1994 Darkman II: The Return of Durant (direct-to-video)
1994 The Fantastic Four (unreleased)
1994 The Crow

The Crow was something of a breakthrough hit, though still a bit underground.

From Goth...

1994 The Shadow
1995 Batman Forever
1996–2000: Superman: The Animated Series (WB cartoon)
1996 Darkman III: Die, Darkman, Die (direct-to-video)
1996 The Phantom
1997 Batman & Robin
1997 Spawn
1998 Blade

Blade was also a mainstream hit. And I recall these cartoons being popular. (The comics companies were wisely gathering children to their cause—children who would become moviegoers in the Noughties.)

...to Ninja...

1999–2001: Batman Beyond (WB cartoon)
2000–3: X-Men: Evolution (Kids’ WB cartoon)
2000 Unbreakable
2000 X-Men (movie)

This is, I think, where comics really went mainstream.

...to Emo.

2001–4: Justice League (Cartoon Network cartoon)
2001 Ghost World
2002 Blade II
2002 Road to Perdition
2002 Spider-Man

And of course by this point they were really mainstream. The dam broke after this:

2003 Daredevil
2003 Hulk
2003 The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
2003 X2: X-Men United
2004–6: Justice League Unlimited (Cartoon Network cartoon)
2004–8: The Batman (Kids’ WB cartoon)
2004 Blade: Trinity
2004 Catwoman
2004 Hellboy
2004 Spider-Man 2
2004 The Incredibles
2005 Batman Begins
2005 Elektra
2005 Fantastic Four
2005 Sky High
2006 My Super Ex-Girlfriend
2006 Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut
2006 Superman Returns
2006 X-Men: The Last Stand
2007 Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer
2007 Ghost Rider
2007 Spider-Man 3
2008–present: Batman: The Brave and the Bold (Cartoon Network cartoon)
2008 The Dark Knight
2008 The Incredible Hulk
2008 Iron Man
2009–present: Wolverine and the X-Men (Nicktoons cartoon)
2009 Watchmen
2009 X-Men Origins: Wolverine

Not all of these films were successful, but they were all high-profile event movies. And by this point, everyone became aware that we were in the midst of what film critics David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson call a cycle (a sudden spate of similar kinds of movies).

I know that I’m sick of superhero movies by now; I tuned out around 2000 (though I have seen a few of them since then). But there’s no end in sight. Looking forward:

2010 Iron Man 2
2010 The Green Hornet
2011 Thor
2011 Green Lantern
2011 The First Avenger: Captain America
2012 Avengers
2012 Green Arrow: Escape from Super Max

…Plus more, no doubt. Well, we’ll see how long this current cycle lasts. Singing about Superman in 1991 may have been a bit geeky, but by 2001, it would have been banal.

“MMM MMM MMM MMM”

Let’s get back to the Crash test Dummies, since I know you’ve missed them. I should reiterate, however, that I care less about making some argument that this was a band of pioneers (“They should be elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame!”), and more interested in using them to trace out the roots of our current aesthetic condition. Because I think that however they came across in the early 1990s, they seem to fit in a lot more now.

First, though, I want to direct your attention to Nitsuh Abebe’s “Twee as Fuck: The Story of Indie Pop,” one of the three best articles ever published at Pitchfork. Abebe traces the origins of Twee back to late 70s London and the Television Personalities:

Abebe’s argument is that Twee is a less aggressive form of punk:

[W]ith punk going full-steam– in this new scene that’s abandoned sophistication and chops, this scene that insists anyone can start a band– you start thinking: Why not me?

Only there’s a problem. Punks act certain ways: They’re loud and angry, or else they’re arty and clever. They yell and make unpleasant noises and put safety pins through their bodies and belongings. And you…well, sorry, but you’re actually pretty normal. You have a schoolboy voice and you’d feel stupid spiking your hair or pulling on bondage trousers. The punks sneer at most everything that came before them, but you don’t sneer much at all, and you certainly don’t see any reason to stop loving the Kinks and Syd Barrett. Truth is, you make a terrible punk– so what are you going to do?

From there, Abebe traces Twee through Beat Happening and The Vaselines to The Magnetic Fields and The Softies and beyond, with various bands in between; it’s a convincing argument.

Hey! It’s that Joan Osborne video!

And I should clarify that I’m talking less here about this more subversive, underground form of Twee, and more about how Twee became commercialized, aboveground, and eventually a dominant, hip aesthetic. Folk Twee, instead of Punk Twee, perhaps.

Now, let’s look at that “MMM MMM MMM MMM” video again.

The Crash Test Dummies, I’d argue, make more sense today than they did seventeen years ago. They’re something of a chamber pop band. They have a penchant for the old-timey instruments, as well as for overt fakiness: check out those neo-Expressionist cardboard sets, the “dizziness” birds that circle over the white-haired boy’s head, the mustached girl detectives with oversized magnifying glasses and deerstalker hats, the cartoonish birthmarks. Maybe Tim Burton was an influence here?

The moon in the background during the second verse owes something to Méliès, and right after that, during the bridge, we have Baroque waves and ships and frolicking sea creatures—perhaps inspired by Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989)?

There’s also, arguably, an Edward Gorey influence, again perhaps by way of Burton. We have a Gothic graveyard, and the stories that Roberts is singing about are Gorey-like (a boy’s hair turns white, a girl has birthmarks all over her body). Today’s Twee never strays far from a Victorian/Edwardian love of Medickal Curiosities. (Was David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980) also a touchstone?)

The play motif is heavily foregrounded. We begin by passing through curtains (check out the little usher with the uniform and false mustache), and eventually leave the way we came in. (The band’s official website also uses this curtain motif.) Peter Greenaway did similar in The Cook The Thief His Wife and Her Lover (1989), and I suppose it’s possible that whoever directed this video was thinking of that:

All in all, we have here a very real theme of playing at the past—elements pilfered from over the past 200 years, funneled through an idealization of childhood.

Regarding childhood, note how, in the video, the adults in the audience are reveling in the cuteness of the school play. Are we as viewers supposed to revel in it, too? I think so; the video is delightful. But aren’t those adults repulsive? Grotesque? Are we therefore repulsive, grotesque, too? Is the video commenting on us?

The adults are by far the strangest part of the video. For instance, what’s going on in the final verse about the churchgoers? Why is the boy, and his parents in the audience, so embarrassed? Is this section about them? There’s a dimly postmodernist blurring between the audience and onstage.

Meanwhile, the band exhibits a guarded sentimentality. Are they joking? Yet they also seem sincere. Roberts’s voice—is it ironic? It has to be ironic. They certainly weren’t a grunge band; there wasn’t anything ironic about Nirvana, or Pearl Jam, or Smashing Pumpkins. The Crash Test Dummies dressed pretty neatly, and if you cut Brad Roberts’s hair and added a few more instruments—some brass—and outfitted them in matching uniforms, they could almost be a contemporary band…

Almost.

Of course, the Smashing Pumpkins also demonstrated a fondness for the Belle Epoque. Like I said, there was something in the air. (And the air hasn’t been cleared for almost twenty years.)

As for the music, it isn’t quite right—it’s too folky—but it’s also precious, and clean, with a pretty full (without being noisy) sound.

The Crash Test Dummies are also fairly melancholic. Their dominant mood is whimsy, tinged with nostalgia.

Nostalgia < NL < Gk nóst(os) a return home + -algia

What is nostalgia? Whence this fondness for the past? Why is it so prevalent in our time?

Nostalgia was originally regarded as a disease, first diagnosed by that name in 1688 by the physician Johannes Hofer. Before Hofer, the condition was called maladie du pays (“homesickness”) or mal du Suisse (“the Swiss illness”), because it was primarily observed amidst Swiss soldiers abroad, who frequently deserted, wishing to return to their homes in the Alps. Their doctors and generals noticed that the Swiss were expecially prone to desert when they heard the Ranz des Vaches (or Kuhreihen):

a simple melody, played on the horn by the Swiss Alpine herdsmen as they drive their cattle to or from the pasture, and which, when played in foreign lands, produces on a Swiss an almost irrepressible yearning for home

…and so they banned it.

Are you pining for the Alps yet?

In the next part of this series, I’ll continue by asking how Twee is perhaps a kind of neo-Romanticism. Until then…you can never go home again.

15 thoughts on “Notes on Twee, part 2: The Crash Test Dummies (Those Avant-Garde Harbingers of Mainstream Superheroes, School Plays, and the Willful Embrace of Nostalgia)

    • Point taken–thanks!

      In general, I think of this series as a speculative one, an ongoing inquiry into the phenomenon that is Twee (notes on a subject rather than any kind of definitive statement). Because I find that the more I examine Twee, the more this supposedly coherent phenomenon eludes a strict definition. Trying to pin it down, while useful, also deforms it.

      I first came across the term in the early 2000s, when I heard it used as a pejorative, to describe bands like Belle & Sebastian. The Abebe essay later gave the term more historical context.

      I think that, since then, elements of Twee have gone aboveground, becoming dominant in US society. But I think that some aspects of the aesthetic were also always aboveground, at least ever since the 1980s, when US culture started turning very juvenile. (A friend of mine said, very insightfully I think, that US culture has become pedophiliac–not in a sexual sense, but in its desperate wanting to prolong and/or return to childhood.)

      So I think there are different kinds of Twee that exist within a larger, more juvenile–even infantile–milieu. Ultimately, I’m more interested in that milieu than I am in Twee, but Twee makes for a good starting point.

      Cheers, Adam

      • this exploration as niche-milieu forming into an “aboveground” entity seems to be of great interest right now.
        in the past few wks it’s been happening to the word “indie” (in my consciousness at least):
        — just read, “slanted & enchanted” by kaya oakes that talks about indie development in the 00s
        — paste mag’s “the death of indie”
        — and punk rock is forever plagued with a similar discussion

        i kind of missed out on the word ‘twee’ though deckfight kind of/sort of addressed it here w/ los campesinos! check the twitter reference at the top of the post:
        http://www.deckfight.com/2010/02/review-los-campesinos-romance-is-boring.html

  1. There’s something important about the way this song (“MMM MMM MMM MMM”) depicts a tendency in our society to misunderstand the sacred. Adam already alludes to this in his great analysis of the song; I only want to further explore an issue he raises.

    Consider the experiences of all three children in this song – the boy whose hair turns white, the girl whose body is covered in birthmarks, and the boy whose parents require him to attend church. All three children are traumatized, but not equally; there is something uniquely troubling about the experience of the third child. This is evidenced by that part of the song that I think is referred to as the ‘bridge.’ Directly after we’ve heard the verses about the first two children, Roberts sings: “But both girl and boy were glad, because one kid had it worse than that.” He is referring, of course, to the third child. And it isn’t clear why this child had it the worst until Roberts sings about him in the next verse:

    “‘Cause then there was this boy whose/Parents made him come directly home right after school/And when they went to their church/They shook and lurched all over the church floor/He couldn’t quite explain it/They’d always just gone there.”

    It’s clear that the boy’s parents are strict, but of greater importance is the context in which that strictness occurs. Because it is this context that, in the opinion of his peers, makes the boy’s experience “worse.” What does it mean that his family “shook and lurched all over the church floor”? It appears that they belong to the religious denomination known as Charismatics, and that they are participating in a ritual that allows the Spirit to spontaneously move in them. But because this song assumes the perspective of the boy’s peers (or of society at large), the language in which this ritual is described reflects an inability to see beyond the merely physical, or the profane. Thus, there is no explicit indication in the song that the boy and his parents are engaged in a sacred activity, even though they are. Instead, their actions are equated with the physical abnormalities of the two other children – the boy with the suddenly whitened hair, and the girl covered in birthmarks. Not that there is anything wrong with these children either, but insofar as the ‘abnormalities’ of these two have to do with their appearances (rather than their beliefs), the song reveals our culture’s blindness to the significance of rituals.

    I think this is what the video is trying to communicate to us when it shows the discomfort of the Charismatic boy’s parents, especially in contrast to the enthusiasm of the other parents. Such a contrast contributes to our sense of the audience as “grotesque,” as Adam mentioned.

    The song doesn’t idealize the religious family; in the video, one senses that the strictness of the family’s beliefs tends to distance them from the camaraderie of their peers. And it’s possible that the boy himself would be better off ‘fitting in’ than embracing the religion he has been born into. But still the song invites us to consider how the choice the family has made has been equated with accidents. Their religion is viewed by the general public as a spectacle, no different than a curiosity.

    • Excellently said, Edward! I especially liked:

      [B]ecause this song assumes the perspective of the boy’s peers (or of society at large), the language in which this ritual is described reflects an inability to see beyond the merely physical, or the profane. Thus, there is no explicit indication in the song that the boy and his parents are engaged in a sacred activity, even though they are. Instead, their actions are equated with the physical abnormalities of the two other children – the boy with the suddenly whitened hair, and the girl covered in birthmarks. Not that there is anything wrong with these children either, but insofar as the ‘abnormalities’ of these two have to do with their appearances (rather than their beliefs), the song reveals our culture’s blindness to the significance of rituals.

      In my next post on this topic, I’m going to examine Twee as a kind of neo-Romanticism. I think that Tweesters, speaking broadly, are motivated by Romantic ideals:
      . to commune with nature (or what remains of it. Twee is a very white, middle class, *suburban* and *urban* movement);
      . to celebrate the local and the human (emphasizing the individual);
      . to find something more direct and transcendent than the polished dross that supposedly-rational authority offers.

      They share also a Luddite (but not ludic) impulse–hence their fondness for the lo-fi, and a nostalgia for older contraptions. (There’s even the obsession with all things Eastern Asian–the Chinoiserie of Late Romanticism!)

      But their very contemporary sense of irony and skepticism prevents Tweesters from fully embracing the central core of Romanticism: the desire for honest and pure emotion. They’re too cerebral, too guarded. Too postmodern. And so, rather than a Dionysian Romanticism (which might be punk), one ends up with an Apollonian Romanticism–Twee. (Emo, then, might be a Twee attempt to throw off intellectualism in favor of direct emotion.)

      (Of course, Romanticism itself was rather complex, and not one single thing. I’ll have to take great care as I Tweezer things apart…)

      More about this anon…

  2. you’re one hell of a cultural etymolo-geneologist, adam! i appreciate your sensitivity to the acknowledgment of long traditions that resurface, e.g. romanticism, etc., and yet are always to a more or lesser degree always present. there does seem to be a synchronic template of human impulses and responses to the physical/social environment and era in which we find ourselves, and yet that template nonetheless plays itself out diachronically: for example, a literary or art movement which forms by distilling previously mixed elements, elements which are then investigated and/or carried out to their logical conclusions or similarly re-appropriated and (more importantly) re-owned in the act of being shaped by the dynamic forces of the present era. it just keeps rolling along like a motion picture camera.

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